The relation between ‘identity’ and (self-) entitlement is clear

A name or an identity? The Hulk. PHOTO: INDUSTRIAL LIGHT & MAGIC
A name or an identity? The Hulk. PHOTO: INDUSTRIAL LIGHT & MAGIC
Identity is a superstition that divides society, writes Glenn Hardesty.

I have been thinking about identity since I was a kid. It was then a niche interest. Now it’s mainstream, but I’m not feeling any more hip.

At age 11, what I found particularly compelling was "secret identities", because all the comic-book superheroes had them. I knew them all, and (now that I think about it), I still do. Sad, really. The Hulk was really Bruce Banner; Iron Man, Tony Stark; Wonder Woman, Diana Prince; Batman, Bruce Wayne; Spiderman, Peter Parker.

Lots of people who seem otherwise grown up are preoccupied with identity, although they don’t wish to be superheroes exactly: more super-victims. And whereas the point of Clark Kent being Superman was that no-one knew, the point of contemporary identities is to make them public, and use them to blackmail other people and institutions who’ve signed on for the doctrine.

The doctrine needs a name to make it visible, so let’s call it identitarianism. So, what’s an identity?

Unlike the actual you, which derives from particular parents, is given a name, has a geographical location and has a set of skills, traits and characteristics, your "identity" is not apparent, but something that other people need to be told about. "Look, Mum, I’m Spiderman!" "Oh, are you dear? Er, that’s nice." Your "identity" is what you think you are — or, perhaps, what you say you think you are: because, after all, who can tell the difference?

The reasons for your choice of identity don’t have to be good or valid or connected to reality. In fact, it’s better if your identity is not connected with reality, because that would imply that other people could verify it. The doctrine of identitarianism says that who you are is all about you.

Part of its point is a status claim. Traditionally, people achieve public recognition for what they do, like completing a worthwhile task or serving others, or for demonstrable personal qualities, such as good humour, intelligence, or kindness. But if you’re not getting sufficient of whatever you’d like, including recognition, rather than trying to change or improve your circumstances, you can claim to belong to some category of being that demands that other people give you special attention.

This powers a new and extremely convenient mode of argument. Since Aristotle we’ve regarded the ad hominem argument as fallacious: it is not valid to say, "You’re wrong because of who you are." But we now cannot only argue that Aristotle is wrong because he’s a dead European male, but also, "I am right" — or at least, I am beyond contradiction — "because of who I am."

New ideas and language arrive in clusters, and we can easily see the relation between "identity" and the vice called (self-) entitlement. You announce your identity — it doesn’t need to have any relation to what’s thought by anyone else — and if you choose a fashionable identity, with a political arm, you can use it to browbeat other people into co-operating. Identitarianism provides an ideological basis for self-entitlement.

If your chosen identity is not connected to reality — and if you actually believe it and are not just making some point or being a nuisance — you’re likely to one day find the intransigence of reality psychically upsetting. No-one ought to be surprised that all across the Western world, rates of mental illness are rising — even apart from the fact that it can be advantageous to identify as mentally ill.

People of generations past didn’t have to bother with identities because until recently there was less opportunity and no necessity of crafting who you are. In the last two generations, all traditional human cultures — interesting minority ones, but also our own majority one: European, theistic, literate — have been dramatically eroded, by consumerism on the one hand and pluralism on the other, pseudo-values of the right and the left, which have happily occupied the vacuum.

But the human psyche, being something real, has had a harder time adjusting, and it’s easy to see how a society with only these bogus values finds identitarianism a serviceable idea.

The rise of identitarianism has been powered by our dependence upon the internet and technological connectivity. Using the internet as a source of information is one thing; but using it to mediate social relationships is another altogether. The carefully crafted impression of one’s character or personality that can be projected via social media may be entirely other than what would be perceived by anyone who was in a room with you for two minutes.

When we lived only or mostly in real communities in real places, there was no necessity and much less opportunity to craft "who you are". The organs of social media feed a scepticism I detect in young people, especially woke and wired ones, about all human relationships. Their loves are conditional, they are suspicious and they seem less likely to have friends than accomplices. And as surveys show, they are desperately lonely.

I have a name, I have a vocation, I have responsibilities. I have a personality and principles. I have parentage, a birthplace and a home. I have experience and knowledge.

What then — and I mean, what exactly — is an identity? Who has foisted this superstition upon us? Did the geneticists find an identity gene in our DNA? Did Nasa accidentally import it from outer space?

Identities purport to fill the conceptual gap left by the absence of souls in post-religious societies. But whatever identities are or aren’t, identitarianism has been taken up by ideologues who want to foment social divisiveness for their own political reasons, as well as by marketing departments which find it rewarding to allocate us all into target markets.

And of course it’s pushed along by the increasing number of folk in the "we’re here for you" professions, who rely on increasing numbers of people becoming so disoriented that they are unable to manage at all.

By being willingly preoccupied by identities we are playing into the hands of these rip-off merchants, whose agenda is to call people away from reality and humanity.

I’m so glad I haven’t got an identity. If you’ve got a secret identity, you should tuck it away in a box in the garage, with the pictures you did at kindergarten. You’d be much better off with a thought-out philosophy of life, compatible with science and tradition, or a meaningful hobby, or some responsibilities, or a pet, or friends.

— Glenn Hardesty is a Dunedin writer and retired teacher.